The Return of the Giant Hogweed

Here’s one for all you proggers!

Long ago, in 1971 to be exact, the nascent progressive rock band Genesis released their second — third, if you count that thing they did in high school — album, the far too aptly named ‘Nursery Cryme’. This was the first album to feature Phil Collins, who went on to do many more commercial things, and Steve Hackett, a guitarist you probably admire if you play the guitar yourself. The singer was Peter “Sledgehammer” Gabriel.

None of this matters now, fifty years later, and I’m not bringing it up to reminisce yet again about my misspent youth. No, I am only bringing this moldy-oldie up because of a single, oft-overlooked, track called ‘The Return of the Giant Hogweed’. The song has stuck in my mind because of it’s hard-rock (well hardish) arrangement which, at the time, was in stark contrast to most of the band’s catalog. The overdriven guitar with furious right-hand hammer-ons following the similarly overdriven clavinet in pounding triplets that never stop for breath, is hard to forget. Believe me, I’ve tried.

The lyric material, of course, is predictably obtuse and concerns the discovery of a plant in Russia, the “Giant Hogweed”, that is brought back to London where it spreads and, at the appropriate moment, attacks humanity. Because, of course, it’s sentient.

So obviously the “Giant Hogweed” is some imaginary plant the band dreamt up to give their sophomore effort a science fiction spin not unlike “Watcher of the Skies” which would appear a year or two later.

All good fun in the man-vs-nature category and as good an excuse as any for a bunch of English schoolboys to make a whole lot of noise — while offering up a dark satire about an imaginary plant with murderous intentions. Pretty good for ’71, and that’s the end of it, right?

Well, no.

Queen Anne’s Lace

Fifty years later, I was walking along the cliffs of the Oregon coast with my dear, and botanically well informed, wife when I spotted several largish examples of Queen Anne’s Lace along the edge of the cliff. Adopting my crustiest English accent I said, “I say, dear heart, look! They’ve got Queen Anne’s Lace! I was unaware that it grew so far west! And such large specimens! And by the ocean no less. My stars!” I swear, that’s verbatim. Then I reached for my hankie to sop the dampness from my brow.

“Oh you silly boy”, my dearest replied, “No! That’s giant hogweed! Don’t touch it, it’s fatally poisonous.”

I swear that this is a real place and that it is where the conversation to the right occurred. Notice that the Oregon State Tourist Board doesn’t include any plants in this promotional shot.

It’s a good thing there was a railing, else I’d have fallen into the ocean, sixty feet below.

My wife loves a good joke, and she will go at least a little out of her way for a prank, as long as it’s neither too exhausting nor hurtful. So my first thought was that she’d heard the Genesis song and was pulling my leg. After all, who would believe that the State of Oregon would allow a deadly plant to grow in open areas where children were roaming free? As I stood there slack-jawed, I balanced this against the possibility that she’d voluntarily sat down and listened to an early Genesis song. As my shock subsided, I realized she was telling the truth.

I stammered out my concern for the children.

“Well, it’s all behind a fence, isn’t it?” Her reply was just a shade tart.

I looked down at my knees and raised an eyebrow. “Do the children become immune once they learn to walk?”

“Oh you’re just silly!” She waggled her hand at me. “Everybody knows to avoid it!” She raised her fan to her face and tittered briefly.

Yes, really. The Giant F**king Hogweed.

I reached for my phone, excuse me, my mobile, and started reading. Head to wikipedia if you want the details, but here are the highlights.

It’s a type of carrot. In fact wild carrots and parsnips are notoriously difficult to distinguish from the G.H., so if you go foraging on the West Coast play it safe and look for mountain lions instead. Or bears. Bears are fun. Actually, the plant has spread throughout the northern U.S. and southern Canada, so if you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, maybe just order some take-out and forget the foraging.

To my surprise, the Genesis song is historically accurate. The plant is native to the Caucasus and was brought to Britain and North America by “Victorian explorers”.

This reckless gardener should probably be wearing a full face sheild.

Every damn part of the thing is toxic. Even brushing up against it while hiking can cause severe phytophotodermatitis (yes that’s a real word) which will cause a rash and leave scars that can linger for years. The sap is particularly toxic which makes removal difficult; the roots must be dug up by someone wearing hazmats.

The plant can grow to eighteen feet in height with leaves three feet long. Heights of seven or eight feet are common.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

Genesis, circa 1972. Smarter than we thought?

So, given that the Genesis song was about a real plant and offered an accurate description of it’s discovery and distribution are we not forced to conclude that Genesis knew something the rest of us didn’t? Are we doomed to suffer an uprising by these noxious weeds as foretold by this prophetic group?!

We are not. It was the seventies and they were all high. End of story.

Actually, one more quick note. While writing this post I reread the lyrics to the original song and must admit with some embarrassment that the actual latin name of the plant is included in the song! So the fact that I did not realize — for half a century — that this was a real plant, says more about me than I care to ponder.

“Mighty Hogweed is avenged
Human bodies soon will know our anger
Kill them with your Hogweed hairs
HERACLEUM MANTEGAZZIANI”

Oops.